While speaking on a panel earlier this year, I watched an expert in artificial intelligence reassure a group of anxious professionals with an analogy: Many people can’t explain how a car runs, but they don’t hesitate to get into one. In other words, consumers will embrace the benefits of technology without asking too many questions. The audience nodded sagely; no one seemed to pick up the metaphor’s disturbing implications.
Drawing a correlation between an inability to describe the internal-combustion engine and our poor grasp of the potential impacts of artificial intelligence brings a false sense of security. One doesn’t need be a gearhead to form opinions on congestion pricing, seat belts, or a gas tax. Likewise, you don’t need to be a coder to grapple with AI. By not asking questions about artificial intelligence and its related fields, we relinquish a massive amount of control to giant profit-seeking firms.
A healthy modern democracy requires ordinary citizens to participate in public discussions about rapidly advancing technologies. We desperately need new policies, regulations, and safety nets for those displaced by machines. With computing power accelerating exponentially, the scale of AI’s significance is still not being fully internalized. The 2017 McKinsey Global Initiative report “A Future that Works” predicts that AI and advanced robotics could automate roughly half of all work globally by 2055, but, McKinsey notes, “this could happen up to 20 years earlier or later depending on the various factors, in addition to other wider economic conditions.”
Granted, the media are producing more articles focused on artificial intelligence, but too often these pieces veer into hysterics. Wired magazine labeled this year’s coverage “The Great Tech Panic of 2017.” We need less fear-mongering and more rational conversation. Dystopian narratives, while entertaining, can also be disorienting. Skynet from the Terminator movies is not imminent. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t hazards ahead.
Yoshua Bengio, a Canadian computer scientist and one of the world’s eminent deep-learning experts, argues that we should focus on the ways technology is set to compound existing problems, especially inequality. Bengio wrote in an e-mail, “AI will probably exacerbate inequalities, first with job disruptions—a few people will benefit greatly from the wealth created, [while] a large number will suffer because of job loss—and second because wealth created by AI is likely to be concentrated in a few companies and a few countries.”
Another risk of AI is its propensity to reinforce racial and gender bias. Earlier this year, a report published in Science showed “that applying machine learning to ordinary human language results in human-like semantic biases.” The researchers input a “corpus of text from the World Wide Web,” and the machine-learning program associated women’s names more with words like “wedding” and “parents” and men’s names with “professional” and “salary.”